Can Humans Know What Animals Experience?
A few decades ago the idea of animal consciousness was radical. Today, the idea that animals have emotions, feelings, awareness is an idea that is changing our understanding of the relationship between humans and non-human animals. But Jeff Warren goes on to argue that we can go even further, that we can find points of connection to non-human animal experience:
“A feeling for the organism” is how the famous geneticist Barbara McClintock described her own intuitions about life. Empathy as a capacity needn’t end at the human genus. It seems to be more a question of how much energy and intelligence and openness you bring to the inquiry. Obviously, the further away you get from the human, the more room for fantasy – this is a genuine risk – but this doesn’t mean there isn’t also a real sensitivity that can be cultivated.
And indeed, when you pan out to the big picture of human knowledge, what you see are multiple lines of inquiry converging on this exact point. From the scientific world, we have the study of animal cognition and communication, as well as more cutting-edge domains like the study of animal sense worlds (or “umwelts”) and embodied cognition. From the philosophical world, investigators are beginning to elaborate a whole series of intriguing approaches, from “affordances” to the phenomenology of “interbeing,” to name just two ideas. All of these lay the groundwork for a kind of radical perspective-taking; they are different ways of illuminating sensibilities we once dismissed as opaque.
And he celebrates the many ways in which art and literature are finding ways to make the connection:
We can and should learn to trust this more free-form style of awareness – it is the means by which we’re able to dramatize any interior, as every novelist and filmmaker and artist knows (even Nagel admits as such in one of his paper’s footnotes: “imagination is remarkably flexible”). Art opens new channels of intimacy and helps us formulate fresh questions and avenues of exploration. Animals are the next frontier, the next concentric circle out.
We are seeing many new examples of this. Novelist Barbara Gowdy is working on a film adaptation of her brilliant novelThe White Bone, which is written entirely from the perspective of a herd of African elephants. Benjamin Hale’s recent The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore tells the story of a young chimpanzee’s acquisition of language. These books are not in the same tradition as Animal Farm and Watership Down, where animals are clearly stand-ins for human characters. Rather, they are infusions of imagination and science, informed attempts to wrestle with very different sensibilities. We can find many recent nonfiction expressions of this too, for example in psychologist Alexandra Horowitz’s bestselling Inside a Dog, zoologist Tim Birkhead’s Bird Sense, journalist John Vaillant’s The Tiger, and filmmaker Liz Marshall’s new documentary,The Ghosts in Our Machine.
Grasping the full extent and majesty of the interior lives of animal, as well as the degree to which we are connected, rather than set apart, from the non-human animal world is the critical step to completely revolutionizing the human relationship to non-human animals. Very interesting stuff.